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COVER STORY : ON LOCATION : Art and history have collided in Moscow with the shooting of a film on the life of Josef Stalin, right. Robert Duvall, left, as Stalin and Maximilian Schell as Lenin have re-enacted the deeds of the dictators in the very locations where they occurred--and with the turmoil of the present day in the background. : Awakening the Kremlin's Ghosts

January 12, 1992|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar, based in London. and

MOSCOW — Economic hardship, lengthening food lines, a failed coup attempt and the very dissolution of their country--people here have had quite enough problems recently. But now Stalin and Lenin, those twin pillars of a dark communist era that's just come to a dramatic close, have once more been strutting around Red Square.

Art and life have been colliding here since the arrival of the cast and crew of "Stalin," a three-hour, $7.5-million TV film to be aired by Home Box Office later this year. It traces the life of the infamous dictator Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for 24 years until his death in 1953.

Some of the key scenes being shot here depict Stalin's rapid ascent in the post-revolutionary government of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, whom he succeeded in 1929. Robert Duvall is in the title role, and Maximilian Schell plays Lenin; both men daily submitted to rigorous sessions in the makeup chair, resulting in uncanny resemblances to the two dictators.

This has led to some odd situations. Schell, in Lenin makeup, strode across Red Square, the object of onlookers' curiosity, while less than 100 yards away, the real Lenin lies embalmed in a glass sarcophagus--the world's most visible corpse. "There has been something scary about all this," Schell says flatly.

Yet with a strong sense of mischief, Schell, still in makeup, also walked into the gloomy GUM department store, and strolled around virtually unnoticed. Shoppers were more interested in joining long, slow-moving lines for whatever scraps of material or low-quality produce might be available on that particular day. "People are so busy with themselves, so anxious to survive, they don't always notice," Schell reflected later.

But when Schell-as-Lenin left the Kremlin for his trailer, he passed a soldier on guard duty. The young man should have been keeping his eyes to the front, but they virtually popped out of his head at this vision of an icon. Unseen by Schell, the soldier reflexively saluted.

Duvall has found the Russians less friendly when they see him as Stalin. "I did this scene with a whole lot of extras," he recalls. "And when they saw me as Stalin, some of them turned away, avoided my gaze. A lot of those guys just couldn't look at me."

The script of "Stalin," by Paul Monash, has gone through a number of rewrites, but history is not being rewritten, as the phrase has been understood here since 1917. Stalin's tyranny--personal as well as political--is dealt with candidly. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of peasants who opposed his push toward collective farming, and he had countless numbers sent to labor camps. But he also brutalized members of his family and close friends; Monash's script depicts him driving his second wife, Nadia, to suicide.

Whatever the quality of the finished film, the people who worked on "Stalin" will long remember this production, which coincided with an extraordinary period in Russian history, fromthe abortive August coup to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The day "Stalin" wrapped--Dec. 21--was also the day Soviet communism officially died. In Alma Ata, 11 of the 12 Soviet republics signed a confederation agreement--the end of the empire that Josef Stalin had built. As the signing took place, Stalin's death scene for film was being shot in the same country house where he had lived for more than 20 years.

Even the film's wrap party had its symbolism. It was catered by McDonald's and Big Macs, French fries and Cokes by the score were wheeled in to the dictator's dining table, where the multinational cast and crew chowed down enthusiastically.

Extraordinary locations were characteristic of the entire production--not only Stalin's dacha , which has remained closed since his death, but also Lenin's original office in the Supreme Soviet building, inside the Kremlin's walls, and actual prisons and courtrooms where Stalin's victims were interrogated and incarcerated. These locations offer a glimpse of the remains of an era that only a handful of people have been privileged to see.

Much of this access has been due to the persistence and negotiating skills of Mark Carliner, the producer of "Stalin." Carliner persuaded officials of the then-Soviet Union to open these rarely seen locations to filming, then cajoled HBO executives into shooting in Moscow, where the movie's major events occurred, rather than in Budapest, an easier but less potent location.

Carliner was fortunate. The former Soviets, still affected by the mood of glasnost and perestroika, are eager to explore and resolve the excesses of their dissolved nation's recent history. But the unparalleled brutality and mass killing that characterized Stalin's career remain difficult for them to handle in the context of a film. "As one senior military adviser to (Russian President) Boris Yeltsin told me," recalls Carliner, 'Maybe it's Americans who should be making this movie. Maybe we Russians can't make it.' "

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